Sotheby’s auction house held its first global digital sale of the coronavirus era on June 29, 2020. The art collecting market had been at a standstill for many months so the expectation was great.
Of the sales, the “Triptych inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus” (1981) by Francis Bacon stood out, for which more than 84.55 million dollars were paid.
The multi-million dollar sale of Bacon’s work was to be expected for several reasons. First, the work had not been on the market since 1987, when it was acquired by a prominent Norwegian businessman and collector. Second, because it is one of the few triptychs that Bacon painted that is not yet in a museum.
The Triptych inspired
The triptychs are his most iconic works and a format to which he repeatedly returned. Between 1962 and 1991 he painted 28 triptychs in this size, fascinated by the power and compositional balance that this format provided. Francis Bacon‘s fascinating triptych is a masterful treatise on the human experience and on the psychological tension that plagued the artist all his life. With chilling grandeur, he tragically presents his timeless concerns on three canvases: mercy and punishment, justice and revenge, sacrifice and self-preservation. Executed in 1981, at the zenith of his career, it offers a masterful return to the same classic text that inspired Three Studies for Figures of the Crucifixion, 1944, which initiated Bacon’s stylistic debut.
The triptych in question is inspired by the only existing ancient Greek trilogy, the tragedy of the Orestiada, written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BC. C. The Greek work revolves around the themes of guilt and revenge.
The public was aware that before setting sail for the Trojan War, Agamemnon, the king of Argos, sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess Artemis, who was blocking the progress of his fleet.
The first play begins with Agamemnon’s return to Argos, and the drama revolves around his wife Clytemnestra, and his ultimately successful plan to assassinate the king and avenge the death of his daughter.
The second play follows Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who takes revenge for his father’s death by committing matricide.
And the third and final part sees Orestes being pursued by the Furies, ancient Greek deities of vengeance, who torment him to the point of madness. Orestes appeals to Athena, who organizes a trial for his peers.
Bacon’s painting avoids narrative legibility, but certain symbols and figures are directly related to Greek tragedy. In the work of Aeschylus, when Agamemnon returns from Troy, Clytemnestra places red robes for her to walk, heralding her betrayal; here, the dais on which the headless figure stands is blood red.
On the left panel, there is a sinister trail of blood seeping under the door, while a thick wound of red and purple paint lacerates the body in a monstrous way that hangs in the air. Possibly the figure represents the Furies.
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Similarly, in the panel on the right, the upper half of the figure appears to be walking into the darkness beyond the door. The body is distorted beyond recognition and not even the mirror reflects the figure in the background.
Beyond this inspiration in the Orestiada, the painting depicts Bacon himself and his own Furies, who haunted him throughout his life. The guilt that haunted him after the suicide of his former partner George Dyer, the mourning of the death of his former lover Peter Lacy and the rejection and mistreatment he suffered from his father in his childhood. It is through the filter of a classic text that Bacon communicates his psychological afflictions to viewers.
The same painter relates that he tried “to create images of the sensations that some of the episodes created within me. I could not paint Agamemnon, Clytemnestra or Cassandra, since that would have been just another type of historical painting when all is said and done. therefore, I tried to create an image of the effect that occurred within me. ” Something visceral but refined, hideous but abstract.
The triptych shape not only reflects the tripartite structure of Orestiada, but also evokes Christian altarpieces. Bacon, despite his staunch atheism, relied on the Christian liturgy to convey his sense of the inevitable doom of human existence.
On a pedestal in the shape of a cross sits a disfigured man; two figures flank it. The blood-red pigment that seeps out from the black void in the left panel, and unfolds under the cross in the center panel, gives the composition a specifically Christian resonance. Through these liturgical allusions, Bacon exposes the expressionist keys to the crucifixion, along the lines of Matthias Grünewald.
To represent a greater effect of being unable to escape fate, Bacon confines his external figures within cage-like structures, a motif that is repeated throughout his work.
Claustrophobic and exposed, Bacon’s figures writhe within their entrapment, grimacing at the onlookers, similar to Alberto Giacometti’s tortured figures in cages. Before doors that lead nowhere, the figures tremble in anticipation of their fate. The swollen and oblong shapes demonstrate the perennial influence of Picasso’s biomorphism on Bacon’s practice.
The disfigured biomorphic forms of the triptych are charged with a disturbing discomfort and a surrealist current, which divines erotic violence in the vein of Salvador Dalí’s El Gran Masturbador.
The head of the central figure slides down and is located on the genitals. Teeth gleam from the mouth that gleam in the hollow flesh to draw viewers directly into the beast’s mouth. Established as the focal point of the painting, the serrated teeth of the central figure can also be a metaphor for a wound.
Many more mysteries and personal symbols hide the canvases apparently without many details of Bacon: like the chair that can be glimpsed in the darkness of the room, the mirror without reflection or the doors that lead nowhere.
A complex personality already tormented.